Subjective Reviews

Team Subjective head to the South West

The Bristol HiFi Show 2019, took place 22nd -24th February. Subjective Review were lucky enough to cram in 2 full days of uninterrupted audio. With the usual caveats that accompany a whistle stop tour through the great and the good, the chalk and the cheese, I submit our account of our adventures, warts and all. 

The lucky ones at the front of the queue. It’s 40 minutes to opening time, day 1

Our days both started in the wee small hours on Friday morning. Bristol being 3 hours away for Dillan and myself naturally the plan was to get there for the 10am opening. Dillan’s friend, systems designer Chirag provided Dillan’s transport and lent an extra touch of trade expertise and poise to the Event. The Marriott is visible from most of Bristol City Centre and has been the faithful companion to Audio T’s Annual Event for the past 32 years. I have fond memories of the first Show, and was amazed to be walking into hotel rooms sitting down and listening to top class loudspeaker systems next to the shower. In that respect, very little has changed. These small rooms provide an informal charm to the proceedings. There remains another side of the coin. Some of the manufacturers take an all out approach to the proceedings . These exhibitions are an extremely important of the overall experience. 2019 seemed busier than I remember previous years, which were busy enough as it was! A few shots were taken outside and give you an idea of the queue on Friday, a working day for most of the population.

20 minutes to kick off

Very orderly patient queue. We Brits are great at queueing!

There were plenty of people waiting inside and greeting the enthusiasts outside, some of whom were waiting from 0900, an hour before kick off. Needless to say, the ground floor to the Show was absolutely rammed with 100s and 100s of very focussed gents who all seemed to be going in separate directions. Such is the size of the Bristol HiFi Show, it goes up the 4th floor and down to the lower ground floor. And there is so much to see in such a relatively short space of time. You need to motor to stand any chance in the hordes. It may take a while to be found if you get trampled underfoot! 

Introduction 

For once, I took some notes. Please do not assume that everything regarding namedrops of various manufacturer’s model numbers and retail prices are correct. It just means I’ve tried harder this time round. The info contained herein will give a taste of what Team Subjective heard; most of it was pretty darn good. We don’t intend to disrespect anyone’s setup. What you have at home may not compare to the rooms we were in, the volume we were listening at, the list of variables is vast and our ears can only do so much. For 2 days they worked overtime…. We welcome any contrasting viewpoints to these expressed within. We are not experts. Well, actually Dillan is. Which means that yours truly is am enthusiast and nothing more. Professing to that description will give you the reader a  explanation hopefully as to the positive nature of this and many other reviews. 

The People

The friendships that are forged and reinforced are a fringe benefit of these get togethers. This is a place when you can talk for as long as you like about what excites you about kit. No one’s eyes glaze over. We all get it. You are preaching to the converted.  And there are things you want to know about the kit that makes you passionate, this is your chance to listen to the people that are responsible for bringing the magic into our homes. There is a lifetime of learning to be had, if there was only the time! Because, of course, there is much to be heard, and a plan makes a great deal of sense. Otherwise, a man could get lost here…

Hear Everything? No way José! Not enough hours in a day

Meze have an excellent ambassador in Matt Esau of SCV Distribution. Matt was on the ground floor and had the 99, Classics and Meze Empyrean, hooked up to some really nice looking streaming dac amp gear from Nova Fidelity. The Meze Empyrean is one of my favourite headphones. It has class. Bass is poised, rich , micro details and sound stage approach Sennheiser HD800 levels but have a tasteful restraint. Meze made a bold move to go from a £279 flagship to one costing 10x that price. But if something feels right, do it! Time will testify to the greatness of these phones and will justify the risk Antonio took in releasing these to a wary marketplace. 

Matt Esau SCV Distribution – at your service
Team Subjective’s very own, Dillan, trying out the Meze Empyrean, Matt patiently awaiting feedback, Micah (AudioPrimate) in deep conversation with Stefan
Diving deep in the Empyrean Ocean

Another name drop for you; we met with the inventor of the Supertweeter. I wondered whether I’d meet the genius behind such mystical arts. The Supertweeter’s powers seem to go almost in the realms of pseudo science for an uneducated writer as myself. Here’s what Townshend Audio have to say on the matter – http://www.townshendaudio.com/supertweeters/

I have been able to spend perhaps 4 hours listening to a Supertweeter system biwired to a set of Tannoy Mercury speakers and additionally a pair of JM Labs/Focal Cobalt 810 floorstanders. I cannot state what they sounded like without the additional Supertweeters, but it was an exceptional sound, of that I will assure you. 

 Max Townshend, of Townshend Audio, spotted our press badges, was humble enough to shake our hands and gave us an excellent demonstration of his floating suspension system for speakers and equipment.  The link – http://www.townshendaudio.com/hi-fi-home-cinema-equipment-vibration-isolation/hi-fi-home-cinema-vibration-isolation-speaker-podiums/

Vibrations are a thing of the past with Max’s vorspring durch technical marvel. They’re not inexpensive, but then neither are KEF Blades, 1 or 2 of which were hanging around, presumably desperate to be blinged out with Max’s wizardry. I’d wager a bet that they’d be very grateful for such a fetching pair of shoes! I am hopeful that I and my much more knowledgeable teammate Dillan will be able to spend a day with this fascinating man and learn much. And listen to his personal set up, which I am told is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience. 

Micah and Stefan go all in ears at the Meze stand in the foyer

Up on the fourth floor was another fascinating man. Tim Mellow is the man behind a new venture called Mellow Acoustics.  Tim loves Quad. What he doesn’t like is their size. They need space and have a nasty habit of taking over one’s living room.  Tim set about finding a solution to the question; could a speaker be built that has the characteristics of an electrostat with a smaller footprint. He believes he has found the answer. The Mellow Acoustics Frontro is a hybrid electrostatic and dynamic driver w way system. The crossover is at 600Hz. From there the electrostat takes over. I got the opportunity for 2 listens to Tim’s analogue setup; a Mitchell Gyrodek, tube camping and of course the Frontro speakers. They really do offer something quite different to anything else I heard at the Show. It takes time to take one’s shoes and socks off from the point and shoots prevalent elsewhere and put one’s slippers on and relax into the effortless clarity of the Mellow Acoustics’ vinyl collection. But it can be done. It takes time. But the effort is well rewarded. 

And now for something completely different…

The Year of the gear

The Bristol HiFi Show is a maze of multitudinous manufacturers, distributors and companies, from What Hi Fi, who treated us to an Audio Visual spectacle with their 8K demonstration of a snippet of UHD upscaled Bohemian Rhapsody accompanied by several powerful Bowers and Wilkins floorstanders and a couple of their subs to boot. 

Bowers and Wilkins kindly found us a spot in their 30 minute demo just before lunchtime on Saturday. The 600 series. It told a story; out with the old and in with the new. In 30 minutes we were taken on a journey of 7 speakers. From the humble 686 standmounts, the formal entry level at £350, we were taken with expertise, muscle-power and efficiency to the Floorstanders that rightly sit at the top of B & W’s 6 series. They say that 1st impressions last. In the course of the mouth watering array paraded in front of us, I couldn’t help but harken back to just how good that 686 sounded. At £350 you’d won me over there and then! For the finale, we had a demo of a TV speaker that Bowers and Wilkins developed for Phillips. For a TV speaker, very very nice. We were given a 2-3 minute demo of Nigel Stanford’s Cymatics-Science vs Music(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3oItpVa9fs)

The best prepared room of the Show – Bowers and Wilkins in the basement

 This is a creation incredible in it’s own right and worth experiencing on your own large screen. Put it upstairs in the living room and get a better room built downstairs for the good stuff! Bowers and Wilkins get the Subjective Review award for top room. Nothing was left to chance. From the presentation par excellence, interspersing Gregory Porter with Deadmaus and Bob Dylan no less, to the acoustic treatment they’d built into the glass walls they’d brought with them. This is the vanguard to carry forward and sets a tough challenge for similar giants of the industry to follow.

Tweeters protruding on the top of some rather sumptuous cream B&W creations. Wife friendly?

Chord was not quite as impressive as B & W, but was not without a good number of people mingling around the demo room. The folks were respectfully quiet; even with standing room only we were able to hear the M Scaler being switched on in sync with the Hugo TT2. I waited patiently and managed to secure a seat near the back of the room. My Subjective team mate found a seat a little nearer where one might assume the sweet spot to be(that mythical centre of audio energy where all music can be heard in perfect symmetry). So we settled down, ready to be wowed. The Chord representative explained the demo, we were to hear the same track with the M Scaler switched off to start with and then with it switched back on. He was very fair about this; if we didn’t hear a difference, not to worry, we’d saved ourselves £3500. If we did, take it as a tester only and go to a dealer and evaluate the M Scaler properly. I would go further than that and say if I wished to spend £3500 on a piece of audio gear I’d need more than 30 minutes in a dealership to be convinced. I’d be looking for a full money back guarantee and an extended loan period. The M Scaler upscales a CD Quality track from a resolution of 44.1 kHz to 705.6 kHz. Did the switching on of the M Scaler alter the sound from the TT2 I hear you ask? The answer is yes. My ears perceived a difference in bass response, upper mids and treble energy were higher too. I felt that I didn’t prefer the sound however. It felt a little too overwhelming. Whether this was a characteristic of the room or the system is not easy a question to answer. Some people looked very impressed indeed, so do not take my word for this. If you have any interest in the technology behind the M Scaler or own one, please tell us what it sounds like to you. We audiophiles don’t exist in isolation to each other.

We got our seats and settled down to the M Scaler before and after

There is a similar technology available in software, HQ Player(https://www.signalyst.com/consumer.html). That can be downloaded and is fully working as a demo version for 30 minute intervals. I have had this software for 2 years and have not even tapped the surface of it’s capabilities; there are endless options of upscaling and digital filtering available. Go ahead and try that first as it won’t cost you a penny and may give you all the options you could ever dream of. 

Chirag, enjoying a day off his manic schedule

Linn used Bristol to unveil a new range of network music players. We were greeted with another one of Scotland’s finest offerings, a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer. Straight from the head office and factory just outside Glasgow, 2 enthusiastic Linnettes explained the technology behind  their new DAC (https://www.linn.co.uk/technology/katalyst). 

Their system was extremely versatile. 6 silver push buttons on the front of the unit could be preprogrammed with inputs, or even favourite tracks or albums. The buttons weren’t perfectly aligned when I looked at them face on when I was shown the Linn range in a static display on the ground floor. Not good for the perfectionists amongst us. Linn demoed the Akurate and the Select streamers. The Select was their flagship and had a pleasingly linear sound. The chaps then unveiled their room correction technology, more on that can be found here: (https://www.linn.co.uk/technology/space-optimisation).

 I preferred the sound before the space optimisation was switched on. The sound became flatter and lost some resolution and rhythm, at least to a few of the listener’s ears. A caveat here, therefore; please try before you buy, it may be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard, but live with it in your own room before you are convinced to part with the readies. Bear in mind too, that the dealer will have to set up your room correction technology by coming into your home. Any room alterations or speaker replacements would necessitate another visit.  

It promised so much, but we didn’t have time to stay

The Audiolab listening room was very busy and much talking was in evidence; the sound was very much in the background when we were there. It did get turned up for a minute or so and what I heard of Paul Weller’s “Pebbles on the Beach” sounded reasonable, but not enough to form a meaningful opinion on. I wanted to stay in there to listen to the Wharfedale Linton 85 speakers on show, just because they looked so lovely and retro. Alas, time waits for no man and after 10 minutes the noise level was only getting worse in there. No ones fault; Audiolab have a lot of followers and it was still relatively early in the day.

Great pictures captured, but the spirit was missing

We managed to get into the What HiFi 8K demonstration. The Japanese have apparently committed to broadcasting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 8K definition, so Samsung have started the ball rolling. What HiFi gave us an idea of what we might be watching in the not too distant future. Nothing is currently available in 8K, so we were shown a few samples to whet our appetite. The magazine had also just received an Ultra High Def copy of our home grown Oscar winner Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Samsung 79” TV upscaled that. With the help of 6 B & W floorstanders and 2 subwoofers, the experience was pretty awesome, and arguably a better sound than my local cinema produced when I went to see it. 

The portable audio sector were represented on the ground floor. Chord had a disappointing lack of kit to try. They had a few Mojo/Poly bundles, 1 Qtest dac which wasn’t hooked up to anything so couldn’t be demoed, and a solitary Hugo 2 dac/amp. The one saving grace was that the stand was giving away free t shirts. 

Beautiful looking stuff from Avid. Expensive, but beautiful
So much gorgeous looking stuff, so little time..

I had brought along my AKG K1000 Earspeakers, because I knew this was mostly about grown ups stuff, Dillan,Micah, Stefan and myself all met up through headfi.org and we are very much still into headphones and portable gear. This is the gear of the daily commute, the snatched moments of 5 minutes of quiet whilst the younger members of the family are having a nap. Both big speakers and small headphones have their place. My Earspeakers are something in the middle. Thing is, they take an awful lot of amping. I found 10 minutes on the SCV stand, interestingly enough that was the only place I found gear that would power the K1000s. The Nova Fidelity Streamer, with a few tweaks to the maximum volume setting was able to get the K1000s loud enough, albeit at a setting of 90 out of 100…..

Novafidelity X35 All-In-One Streamer
The AKG K1000 Bass Heavy Generation 1 Earspeaker in ultra wide mode
Very strange, but the sound is true

The Sony stand looked very much the same as I remember it 2 years ago. The one exception was a turntable which outputs bluetooth. The turntable was sending a signal to the WH1000 XM3 wireless headphones. Having been spoilt with so many ultra revealing systems up to this point, the Sony setup was fun to see and mess around with the gesture controls on the headphone etc. but it was dull sounding and I didn’t spend too much time with it. Sony also had their MDR Z1R bio cellulose semi open headphones which I have listened to on a number of occasions. I would encourage any headphone lover to have an audition of these; they have a fantastic sound signature. Likewise, the TA-ZH1ES High-Resolution Audio Headphone Amplifier is a smart looking companion to its headphone cousin and is a great combination. 

Sony’s bluetooth turntable. It wasn’t bad (sorry!)
MDR Z1R flagship moment

Sennheiser had a stand just by the entrance. For Sennheiser, it felt like they were being squeezed in. The was an HD800S, HDVD800 Dac/amp, Momentum truly wireless buds, IE800S in ears and a HD820 closed phone. I was particularly interested in the IE800S. I own the IE800 and have had it for 5 years. I happened to have a Chord Mojo so was able to A/B the S against the original. The Mojo has 2 headphone or line outputs and can work simultaneously. I found the S model to lose some of the magic I love the IE800 for; namely the tinkly stuff, as I call it, the shimmering treble sound that I’ve yet to find anywhere else apart from the HD800. The S model sounded less clearer and had a more intimate sound stage. The Sennheiser rep said the S model was designed to provide a wider dynamic range than the original. The official website simply states “Featuring a refined version of our proprietary Extra Wide Band (XWB) drivers”. The sound was already refined in my opinion but again, this must have appeal to audiophiles who hear the original as having an unnaturally wide soundstage and mid/treble resolution. 

A moment of bliss in the chaos

The 2 days flew by in the company of my intrepid companions, Dillan, Chirag, Micah and Stefan. And we also never let Matt Esau or Tim Mellow out of our sight for long! We stormed into listening rooms and tried our best to re energise various flagging rooms with demands of driving rock music instead of the 50s jazz and blues fodder that we are all supposed to worship for its accuracy and musicianship and things. We managed to find some Metallica in a room with a Clearaudio turntable and some very strange omni directional speakers that really got our toes tapping. The Larsen 8 speakers were quirky looking beasties. They looked suspiciously like seats to the uninitiated, but the sound was super real, exciting, with none of the ringing we were getting in the other rooms, which of course had little or no acoustic treatment. The Larsen 8 just needs to slide up against a wall with nothing solid immediately to the side of it, then it does its thing. The sound they came up with was my favourite moment of the show. http://www.larsenhifi.com/en/larsen8.htm

The Larsen 8 conceals 2 bass drivers in each cabinet. The bass goes down to 23 Hz

The Clearaudio Turntable may have had a part to play in the Larsen 8’s monster sound

Talking of favourites, the speakers with the finest transparency had to be the Mellow Audio Frontro Hybrid Electrostats. The signature was slightly bass light but the accurate tonal reproduction of the instruments being played could not be in question. Tim Mellow recommends an additional sub to augment the lower ranges. Even without the sub this was a remarkable sound signature and one so different from the standard designs that it takes some time to get accustomed to. 

It’s Mellow in name and nature

Conclusion

More popular than ever it seems, the Bristol HiFi Show has not been diminished by a move away from the AV origins. Whilst not a vintage year for portable products, it was the 2 channel system that stole the show and unsurprisingly so. With 5 floors of HiFi products to get through for 2019 there must have been something for any audiophile to drool over, and what could be better than that? Factoring in the cheaper cost of accommodation and entertainment in comparison to London, it’s not difficult to see why late February has become such an important date in the calendar for so many years. It would be a brave man who bet against this audio extravaganza going from strength to strength.

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